Confidently Stupid – The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The perverse premise of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the less you know about a topic the more you over estimate your skill level in it. I saw a somewhat similar view expressed in the most recent Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast in which the quote of the week was:

“An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” – Anatole France

There must be some evolutionary benefit to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Perhaps premature confidence in your skill level gives you some sort of ability to bluff your way through a life threatening situation by being incredibly ballsy, like not cowering in the face of a lion attack. I wonder if the reverse is true, i.e. perhaps being overly aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect can stifle progress in a new endeavour.

I took up golf as a young child, lived across the road from a golf course, devoured dozens of instruction books, watched and re-watched countless recordings of tournament golf from television, spent years on the practice fairway hitting thousands of balls and played as many as 54 holes a day during my school holidays. For a good 10 year period through my teens and early adulthood I played a lot of golf.

For all that effort I’m only an above average player, when I’m playing regularly, my handicap hovers around 8, which in Australia puts me somewhere around the top 15-20th percentile of club golfers. It’s quite humbling, I can’t think of anything I’ve put more effort into and yet, in a random group of 100 golfers I wouldn’t be in the top 10.

I’ve observed a lot of inexperienced golfers who are astonishingly over confident in their skills after only a few casual games. Statistically, at their level of experience they are probably in the worst 1% of able bodies golfers, and yet they brag about how far they can hit it, and how many birdies they’ve made, when they hear that I play golf too they can’t wait to “take me on”. I’m sure they genuinely believe they have a great chance at winning (they don’t). Even more amazingly, after “taking on” an experienced player they rationalise their drubbing as “just having an off day”, and continue to believe they have a real chance of winning next time (they still don’t).

One of the benefits of persisting with an effort to master some skill over a long period of time is what you learn about learning. The deeper your knowledge on a topic, the more you realise what you don’t know, or at least, the more you think you don’t know. Or to say it another way, when you are just starting out learning something, you don’t know what you don’t know.

So does awareness of the Dunning-Kruger effect cause your progress to be not as rapid as someone who is blissfully ignorant of their incompetence? I don’t know. Excuse me while I study it more…